Lukman Haruna may only be in his 20th year, but he already gives off the confident air of a seasoned veteran. In just a matter of weeks, the young Nigerian has gone from being a surprise inclusion in his country’s preliminary 30-man squad to a potential starter in coach Lars Lagerback’s 2010 FIFA World Cup™ line-up. But this rise to prominence is not altogether that surprising, taking into account the midfield man’s career to date.
While his name may not yet be on the lips of football fans outside Nigeria, Haruna has already acquired superstar status at home. In a nation of 150 million football lovers, he who lifts a global trophy will inevitably become an instant national hero. As captain of the 2007 FIFA U-17 World Cup-winning team in Korea, Haruna knows exactly what that level of adulation feels like.
Yemi Tella, Haruna’s coach at the time, clearly had it right when handing him the armband, because three years down the line, the Monaco player remains the only Golden Eaglet of that generation to have broken into the senior side, receiving his first cap back in January 2008. In addition, he is the only one currently playing first-team football in a major European league.
While Macauley Chrisantus, Rabiu Ibrahim and Yakubu Alfa received the lion’s share of the plaudits for their scoring exploits and flair in Asia in 2007, Monaco’s scouts were more interested in the engine of the team. A tireless box-to-box midfielder, equipped with fine skills and an explosive shot, Haruna is a firm believer that the best form of defence is attack.
“I like defending but I also love going forward; pushing, testing the opposition, providing useful balls to my strikers,” he explained recently via his club’s website. “With club and country, I’ve already played in different positions, but I don‘t have one particular favourite – I think it’s better to be more than a one-trick pony.”
Back on track
It was this very versatility that caught the eye of Real Madrid, Porto and Bayern Munich, but it was in the south of France that he would find the ideal environment in which to express himself. In choosing to join the principality outfit in January 2008, Haruna was well aware that the club would offer him a better chance of regular football than some of his other suitors. After a year spent finding his feet in Monaco’s reserve side, that opportunity presented itself in March 2009. It would be the first of several Ligue 1 appearances for Haruna, captain of Nigeria’s U-20 team by this point.
And while his fighting spirit and ball control were there for all to see, a plethora of yellow cards and stray passes threatened to make his stay at Stade Louis II a short one. Inexperience, an over-enthusiastic approach and a nonchalant attitude were proving serious faults, at least in the eyes of his international coach, Samson Siasia, who saw fit to rebuke Haruna after Nigeria's early elimination at the FIFA U-20 World Cup 2009.
It seemed that he might be heading down the wrong path, but Guy Lacombe, coach of Monaco and famed for nurturing talents at Cannes such as Zinedine Zidane, Patrick Vieira and Johan Micoud, had other ideas. “At the turn of the year, he came to see me and we had a long chat about football but also about life in general,” explains the precocious Super Eagle.
“Thanks to our conversation, I realised a few things about a footballer’s duties – the constant need to work hard in order to make progress, for example. He asked me to change certain aspects of my behaviour, in terms of my effort, motivation and desire. I’m trying to, but I know I can still do better.” The talk had an immediate effect, as Haruna scored his first-ever French league goal during the next match against Montpellier, and followed it up with a second, just twelve minutes later.
In the footsteps of Obi Mikel
The Eagle had begun to soar and, having established himself in his club’s starting XI, he then received his first call-up from coach Lagerback, newly installed at the head of the Nigerian senior side. He played in two friendlies arranged as preparation for South Africa 2010, putting in a solid performance in the first game, a 0-0 draw with Saudi Arabia, and notching up a maiden goal for the full international team in the second match against Colombia. His displays persuaded the Swedish supremo of his worth, and Haruna's name was consequently added to the list of 23 players set to fly out to South Africa.
Once there, he will undoubtedly be one to watch in terms of the Hyundai Best Young Player award, but at this stage he is simply delighted to be in the company of great footballers. “There are two in particular that have had a very positive influence on me: John Obi Mikel and Nwankwo Kanu,” reveals Haruna. “They’re both great players that I talk to often. They have helped me to progress, both in my profession and in my life.”
Obi Mikel should perhaps refrain from offering useful advice to Haruna quite so willingly in the future, given that his fast-improving team-mate now represents the main rival for his position in the Nigeria line-up.
At Monaco, Lukman Haruna hopes to recreate the same success enjoyed by another Nigerian. “Victor Ikpeba left his mark on the history of the club. Much is expected of me,” he declared on his arrival, referring to the free-scoring forward who starred at Stade Louis II from 1993 to 1999. “I’m going to do my utmost to become an icon here, too.”
Selected for his country’s 23-man South Africa 2010 squad, Lukman Haruna is the first Nigerian player to take part in FIFA World Cups at three different age levels, after the FIFA U-17 World Cup 2007 and the FIFA U-20 World Cup 2009.
During the CAF African Youth Championship in 2009, Lukman Haruna missed a penalty in two successive matches, but he was not too discouraged by this unfortunate turn of events. “Missing penalties is not unusual in football. Even the very best players miss sometimes.”
Although he got more than his fair share of goals at youth level and has already hit the net on four occasions in Ligue 1, Lukman Haruna feels he has more to offer in this area: “The part of my game that I’d most like to improve is my shooting accuracy - I don’t hit the target often enough.”